A recent article in USA Today is titled “Many with sudden cardiac arrest had early signs” (link). The signs include shortness of breath, faintness, chest pain, etc. Hold on to the headline because it’s the only thing believable in the entire article.
The words “early signs” imply to readers that were the men to heed these warnings, they could have prevented the cardiac arrests.
Think about the following two statements:
A1) Many with sudden cardiac arrest previously had symptoms.
B1) Many with symptoms subsequently had sudden cardiac arrest.
These two statements are far from equivalent, even though they describe the same sequence of events.
It’s easier to see the difference if we specify the symptoms:
A2) Many with sudden cardiac arrest had shortness of breath weeks before.
B2) Many with shortness of breath had sudden cardiac arrest weeks later.
It’s even easier to see if we include a number:
A3) 53% of those with sudden cardiac arrest had chest pain, shortness of breath, etc. (a direct quote from the article)
B3) 53% of those with chest pain, shortness of breath, etc. subsequently had sudden cardiac arrest.
B3) is clearly false. The universe of men who suffer from chest pain, shortness of breath, etc. is much larger than the population who have sudden cardiac arrest in any given week. B3) vastly exaggerates the number of sudden cardiac arrests.
How did the researchers come to make this type of claims? They were looking at a data set that had no control group.
“Clugh and colleagues studied medical records of 567 men from Portland, Ore., ages 35 to 65, who had out-of-hospital cardiac arrests between 2002 and 2012… 13% had [prior] shortness of breath… ” We have no way of interpreting whether 13% is a big or small number unless we know what proportion of middle-aged men with the same characteristics as those in the study but who did not have cardiac arrest suffered from shortness of breath.
One of the greatest challenges of the Big Data era is the absence of control groups. Without them, we don’t have a yardstick to judge.